These days when we find a rock with the imprint of a seashell we know it’s a common fossil. But in the days when Science hadn’t already imagined our world for us, the question of how the sea creature got so far inland, inspired stories. The ancient Iranians had seen rocks fall from the sky, so they imagined monsters called deevs who could throw rocks all the way from the bottom of the oceans to the tops of mountains.
There is a well-known story in which a deev called Akvan battles the Iranian supreme champion Rostam. But that episode doesn’t say anything about Akvan throwing rocks from the sea. Why did Akvan toss rocks to dry land? Was he fighting another monster, was he building a home for himself? We don’t know. Obviously large parts of Akvan’s story are lost to us.
I once saw a painting of one of Akvan’s rocks. A hundred elephants harnessed to heavy chains were pulling it. The rock had made deep tracks, and there was fatigue on the faces of the elephant drivers. To help lighten the load, magicians were casting spells and chanting verses at the boulder.
The reason for all this effort is seen on the opposite side from the rock. He too is in chains, being dragged by guards towards the same destination: the dark pit that commands the center of the painting. Who was the man in chains, and what had he done to deserve imprisonment under the rock of Akvan? The hero’s name was Bijan. He fell into this mess because people he trusted betrayed him. But in my opinion it was Bijan’s father, Geev that truly failed him. Geev had taught Bijan, how to wield every weapon, defend against every attack, and surprise the cleverest enemy. But he hadn’t taught him to be considerate of the feelings of others. That makes enemies of your friends. Also, Geev never taught his son about women. So, when Bijan met the magnificent Princess Manijeh, who was as reckless as she was beautiful, the hero was defenseless.
How is it that we know so much about Bijan and Manijeh when Akvan’s story perished in the fires of war?
There are legends about a book of ancient stories being smuggled out of war torn Iran to the safety of Africa. This anthology, called, the Shahnameh, was written in an Iranian language that is now extinct.
After a perilous three hundred years in exile, the book returned to Iran and fell into the hands of the great Iranian poet Ferdowsi, who translated the work into such unforgettable poetry, that the stories are now safe forever. The romance of Bijan and Manijeh is just one of the tens of Shahnameh stories versified by Ferdowsi. The story begins festively in the pleasure palace of the King of Kings Emperor KeiKhosro. There, among the golden columns, marble fountains, and silken carpets, Iran’s war heroes were celebrating a narrow victory against the rival Empire of Tooran. Ruby red wine leaped up in joyful droplets as goblets clashed in drunken salutes.
Suddenly the revelry was interrupted by a delegation from Armenia who had arrived to seek the emperor’s justice. Armenians were a subject people on the border between Iran and Tooran, so the emperor knew this was going to be politically thorny.
The Armenians , showered the emperor with gifts and praises and said, “Hear our plight o King of Kings. There is a forest on the Iranian side of our land. It gives us wood for our buildings, its meadows are grazing grounds for our livestock, and the fruit from its trees sweeten our meals. Now a band of vicious wild boar has taken over this forest. They have tusks like elephants with bodies just as huge. They attack our woodsmen, threaten our shepherds, and destroy the fruit trees. Your subjects in Armenia are suffering, oh Emperor. Send us your warriors, and rid us of these vile creatures.”
Now KeiKhosrow was a smart enough emperor to know that this delegation wasn’t there because the Armenians were helpless against their local wildlife. Despite the appearance of loyalty, the Armenians were testing Iran’s willingness and ability to give them protection. Their request for a boar hunt subtly reminded the Emperor that Tooran could always offer Armenia a better deal.
The Emperor didn’t want to lose Armenia to Tooran, so he turned to his champions and asked, “Who among you will take care of this for me?” The hall was silent. The war weary heroes had had enough mud and cold and sleeplessness. And though they could still be stirred against a more prestigious opponent, nobody wanted go against a dangerous band of wild pig on a purely political mission. So to encourage a volunteer, Emperor KeiKhosro summoned his treasurer. At this point in the story, let’s note the poet Ferdowsi’s elaborate description of the golden cloth that was spread before everyone present, and the generosity with which the King of Kings poured every sort of treasure onto this spread. The inclusion of these passages is a hint by the poet to his patron, Sultan Mahmood. The Sultan had agreed to pay the poet one gold piece for every verse of the Shahnameh. The Shahnameh is 60,000 verses long, so when the epic was completed, we were talking a lot of money. But the story of Bijan and Manijeh happens around verse 20,000, and gives only hints of the future squabble between the poet and the sultan. As treasure piles up on the golden spread, the Emperor announced, “Whoever makes my pleasure his pleasure, shall make my treasure his treasure.” Still the tired champions looked away. Finally, the youngest champion, Bijan, son of Geev stepped forward. But Geev, yanked him back saying, “Son, I don’t doubt your skills in battle, but life still holds too many surprises for you, and if this situation turns delicate, you could embarrass yourself and your king”
Bijan said, “Father, in judgment I am older than my years, let me serve my country. Remember, I am Bijan, son of Geev the breaker of armies.”
When Emperor KeiKhosrow heard these words, he praised Bijan’s loyalty and gave him the job. But he had also heard Geev’s words of caution, so he turned to the older champion Gorgin, and said diplomatically, “As Bijan does not know the way to Armenia, why don’t you go with him and be his guide and companion.”
Bijan thanked the emperor, but secretly he resented Gorgin, as the elder companion represented the lack of trust in him. So, contrary to what was expected of a leader, Bijan didn’t share the treasure with his companion in arms. This was the young warrior’s first mistake. And Geev, the father, certainly had the chance to advise him on this, but failed.
Bijan and Gorgin geared up and headed northwest towards the forests of Armenia. It was a pleasant journey through beautiful territory. Finally, one day they sighted a band of wild boar, and knew they had arrived. Gorgin set up camp while Bijan hunted a wild ass, which they roasted over a big fire and washed down with plenty of wine. After the meal, Gorgin stretched and yawned, and started looking for a shady spot to lie down and digest. But Bijan sprang up and began putting on his armor. “What are you doing?” said Gorgin. “We don’t have time to sleep,” said Bijan. “The boar could escape.” “They aren’t going anywhere, let’s kill them tomorrow,” said Gorgin. “No,” said Bijan, “We’re starting our attack now. I will use flaming arrows to herd them towards that creek, and then I will fall upon them with lance and sword. I want you to take position downstream and slay any that try to escape. Gorgin said, “Bijan, I was sent to protect you with my counsel. Now hear me. When you have wine in your head and a belly full of meat, it is not the best time to fight. Never underestimate the cleverness of animals. Let’s wait till tomorrow morning when we are sharp and at our best.” But Bijan would not listen. He mounted his horse and ordered Gorgin to do the same. Gorgin, still drunk with wine, lost his cool and said, “Well, it’s your fight then. My orders were to guide you, not to lose my life to your stupidity.” Hearing those words from Gorgin, Bijan spurred his horse angrily and rode into the forest alone.
The older champion was right, of course. The boar army had been waiting in ambush. Before Bijan could start his fires, they swarmed him, threw him off his horse and bit into his armor. From a distance, Gorgin saw Bijan get covered from view by a swarm of wild boar. His companion in trouble, Gorgin rode as fast as he could to try to help. But before he was half way there he heard a thunderous roar and suddenly the boar on top of Bijan were flung into the air in bits and pieces. The mighty Bijan sprang up fiery eyed, a dagger in each hand. Gorgin stood watching the battle in awe, as Bijan’s daggers came down upon the boar like rain upon leaves. Then the hero quickly remounted his horse and started a fire with flaming arrows, trapping the boar army between himself and the flames. The forest was filled with smoke and the sound of squealing. And soon Gorgin saw Bijan emerge from the haze with the mountainous head of the leader of the wild boar.
“Well done young hero!” said Gorgin raising his arms is praise. But in his heart, he had that “oh crap” feeling. He imagined the two of them being back in the Emperor’s palace, the champions gathered around them, marveling at the size of the boar tusks. Then they would beg the story of this great adventure, and Bijan would recount how he took on the boar army single-handed. And the Emperor would ask what strategic position did Gorgin take? Was he watching Bijan’s back? Was he slaying those who escaped? Curse that wine, thought Gorgin; he would never be able to show his face at the palace again, nor would he be welcome to do so. Meanwhile Bijan bragged loudly and made vain remarks about his deeds. Hearing Bijan’s boasting, Gorgin realized that the boy was too hungry for praise to sacrifice any of it to discretion. And that is why he had to make sure that Bijan never made it home.
Here Sultan Mahmood the Conqueror should have seen himself in the character of Bijan. The Sultan, who kept his treasure to himself like Bijan, was also vain like Bijan. His histories always mention that the Sultan was very handsome. Now I don’t know of any other conqueror for whom looks is a quality worthy of historical record. There’s Caliph Harun the Wise, there’s King Anooshirvan the Just. This guy wanted to be Sultan Mahmood the Good Looking. Of course the Sultan isn’t here to defend himself, whereas his nemesis Ferdowsi is here with us to make fun of him. Ferdowsi wrote a scathing satire in verse against the Sultan for not paying for the Shahnameh. While reading Ferdowsi’s famous satire, Iranians think of Sultan as Mahmood the Good Looking as the Sultan Mahmood the Uncouth, the Uncultured and the Ill-bred. Even the title of Sultan Mahmood the Conqueror loses it luster as it reminds us that he had pillaged enough gold to support a thousand poets, yet he failed to pay for Iran’s greatest epic. And if I have led you to believe that the argument was over money, let me make it clear that it was not. The Shahnameh was a revival of Iran’s pre-Islamic culture. Before the Emperor KeiKhosro went to battle, he prayed to the god Hormoz. He had never heard of Allah. It is Hormoz, not Allah that gives him his mandate to rule. It is Hormoz, not Allah that comes to the aid of Shahnameh’s heroes. Ferdowsi could have easily taken artistic license and incorporated a bit of the Koran into these ancient stories. Not a word! Though a Muslim, the poet makes his stand as a nationalist. Throughout the epic, he stubbornly avoids words of Arabic origin wherever possible. He says of his masterpiece, “ I have suffered thirty years to resurrect his own tongue to the Persian.” Do you now see what the gold argument was really about? What the Sultan paid for each verse of this non-Islamic literature was a reflection of how much he valued Iran over Islam. All eyes were upon him. If he paid too much, could he still justify looting Hindu temples in the name of Allah? If he paid too little, nationalists like Ferdowsi would skewer him in the eyes of history? This is the proverbial power of the pen, and Ferdowsi warns the Sultan, “Don’t hurt the feelings of a poet, for how I judge you will remain your verdict until judgment day.” And the Sultan, having disgraced himself, decided, that the witness to his shame, Iran’s most Iranian poet, must be silenced forever. Which is exactly what Gorgin was plotting for the young Bijan.
As they broke camp to head for home, Gorgin said deviously, “Son, you’re a grown man now, and it is time I shared a manly secret with you. Just two days ride from here are the pavilions where Tooranian princesses and their beautiful handmaidens spend the summer. The women are tall with long fragrant hair and lithe bodies. Behind those veils are faces soft as the morning mist, eyes alluring as dreams, and kisses, intoxicating as wine. After your manly deed, it is only fitting that you should delight in the pleasures of men. Let’s ride out to the pavilions, capture some of these beauties, and make Emperor KeiKhosrow even prouder of us.
The word “capture,” in Farsi also means to marry. And Ferdowsi makes deliberate use of this ambiguity. Did Gorgin mean that the wholesome Bijan should haul away a woman away by force, or did he mean he should court and marry one of these beauties? If he meant the former, Emperor KeiKhosrow would have been furious. “I sent you away to take care of a tiny pig problem in Armenia; instead you go to Tooran and start another war?” Whatever Gorgin meant, Bijan was all for it, so they rode out to the pavilions. When they neared their destination, Gorgin slowed down, causing the impatient Bijan to say, “Old man, let me scout ahead and see some of these women for myself. Then I will ride back and we will decide together if they are worth the effort.” Gorgin said, “Go, and be happy.”
Bijan rode ahead, and when he saw the pavilions, he dismounted and crawled through the grass towards the compound. He was so stealthy, not a blade moved to betray his position. Slipping through the guards like a phantom, he climbed a tall tree that gave him good cover, and afforded him a perfect view of the grounds.
Meanwhile, inside the fanciest tent, the daughter of the king of Tooran, Princess Manijeh had had enough of jugglers and minstrels. She was throwing a tantrum of boredom. Running out of options, one of the handmaidens finally said, “Why don’t we introduce the Princess to that stealthy warrior who has been checking us out from the top of that yon tree.”
“What stealthy warrior?” said Princess Manijeh, suddenly sobering.
Casually, so the guards wouldn’t notice, the Princess and her handmaidens went out for a stroll. From his perch Bijan saw Manijeh and nearly fell out of the tree. Manijeh, seeing Bijan, quickly ordered everyone back to her tent and there commanded, “Hurry, bring him to me, or the fire of my yearning will burn the world.”
Manijeh’s governess went to the tree, and quietly called Bijan down. “Tell me you have not seen the face of my mistress and I will not call the guards,” she whispered. Bijan took off his diamond-studded armband and showed it to the woman. “I have seen your mistress’s face, and this is for you, if you take her on another stroll so I can see her face again. The governess replied knowingly, “And what would you give me if I arranged for you to meet the princess in her tent?”
That night the maidens smuggled Bijan into Princess Manijeh’s tent. Then they curtsied and left the two of them alone.
“You better be interesting,” said Manijeh. “The only reason you are alive is because I’m bored.” The Champion told her about his mission to slay the boar, and how he had incidentally heard about her camp in the woods. All the time Bijan was talking, Manijeh’s eyes could see only his mouth, his eyes, and the powerful arms reenacting the thrust of dagger.
“When the wild boars bit in to your armor, did they wound you?” Manijeh asked.
“Yes,” said Bijan.
“Where?” Manijeh asked.
“Right here,” said Bijan.
Bijan showed her.
The princess ran her hand softly over the gash and whispered, “Unbelievable courage.”
The two spent three days and nights together, and Ferdowsi says they drank, and listened to music. Whatever else they did he does not detail.
At the end of the three-day long first date, Bijan finally got to his feet and said, “Well, time to go.”
The spoiled Manijeh said, “But I don’t want you to go. Please, stay as long as I want you to.”
“I’ve got to report back to the Emperor.”
“Then haul me away with you. Go ahead and take me. I won’t scream. It is what you came here for. Isn’t it?”
“Umm, I can’t right now. But I promise I will be back for you.”
“When? What month, what season?”
Finally Bijan said, “Look my beauty, let’s be reasonable. You are the daughter of the king of Tooran, my emperor’s greatest enemy.”
Manijeh turned livid, stamped her foot down, and shrieked, “Well you should have thought of that before you sneaked into the compound. You creep!”
“Honest, I didn’t know this would happen. I’m so sorry.”
So Manijeh changed her tactics. “Will you at least give me one more night,” she said tears in her eyes.
Bijan had never seen tears like hers. Drops of dew on a rose petal “O.K., one more night,” he sighed, “and then it has to be goodbye for us.”
That afternoon Manijeh’s handmaidens were grooming her when she suddenly grabbed the brush and threw it down.
“Why so upset, my girl?” Her governess asked.
Manijeh said, “Tonight, when I ask the maids to bring wine for Bijan, I want you to spike it with a strong sleeping potion.”
“Do it!” Manijeh ordered.
And so the next day as Manijeh and her entourage packed to head back to the palace, the unconscious champion was stuffed into a large trunk and hauled along as part of the royal baggage. Geev should have warned Bijan: you don’t haul away a Tooranian woman; she hauls you away. Throughout the Shahnameh, so many Tooranian women capture Iran’s finest men that they leave virtually nothing for Iranian women. In fact it is no longer a secret that the Emperor KeiKhosro himself is Tooranian-- on his mother’s side.
When Bijan woke up, Manijeh was at his side, but he knew right away that they were no longer in a tent. He stumbled groggily towards the window and looked out. As far as his eyes could see, there were towers and domes, houses, gardens and fields beyond.
Bijan went pale, “Oh, great Hormuz, where are we?”
“Tooran’s capital,” Manijeh said. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Beautiful as a beheading. Manijeh what have you done?”
“Don’t worry love, you’ll be safe here in the women’s harem.”
Back in the real world, as Ferdowsi looked for a hiding place from Sultan Mahmood, he knew that the Sultan’s harem was right out. So to duck the wrath of his king, Ferdowsi ran away to the chateau of one of the Sultan’s more cultured vassals. Soon this vassal grew nervous that the Sultan would find out he was harboring the eloquent fugitive. No more nervous, of course, than the guards at king Afrasiab’s harem who Manijeh had bribed into keeping their mouths shut.
Every one knows that sneaking men into the harem was par for the course. You can’t lock up a hundred Tooranian women behind walls and not expect there to be some trafficking in men. Traditionally, each woman had something on every other, and from this politics of bribe and blackmail there evolved ecology of silence. But Bijan had disrupted this balance. He wasn’t just entertainment, he was the enemy, a trained military man, and a threat to the security of the land. The price on his head transcended the politics of the harem. So, after a few weeks of hot romance between the lovers, somebody snitched.
On hearing the news, Afrasiab, the king of Tooran, went into such a fit of rage, his own guards feared for their lives. Then he summoned his brother Garsivaz and ordered him to storm the harem, capture Bijan and throw him in chains. The brother, Garsivz is one of Sharnameh’s most contemptible characters. The king always sent him to do his dirty work because dirty acts are harder to do than to imagine. How Garsivaz earned this reputation as a villain is one of the saddest episodes of the Shahnameh, but that’s a story for another day.
Garsivaz and an army of guards broke down the door to Manijeh’s quarters, and found Bijan at the ready with his boot knife. The boar army had been no worse, but there the hero had a sword, armor, a horse, arrows. Yet, in the face of battle, his training took over, and with a warrior’s calmness he prioritized his targets. First on his list was the wicked Garsivaz. But Garsivaz had his own advanced training. As a politician! He always did his homework on his enemy. On seeing Bijan, he acted very surprised and slapped one of the guards hard in the face. “Why did no one tell me, Princess Manijeh’s guest is Bijan, son of the famous Geev.”
“You have heard of me?” Bijan said.
“Heard of you? All of Armenia is talking about how you rid them of the vicious boars. There is no one in Iran, or Tooran that has not heard your praise.”
“Really?” Something didn’t seem quite right, but the clever Garsivaz knew that in this moment of high crisis, the young man would be prone to denial.
“Come,” said Garsivaz. “Let me intervene for you with my brother. I’ll counsel him not to let this embarrassing affair become public. We’ll sweep it under the rug somehow and arrange a marriage.”
Hearing happy words like that, Bijan let his guard down. The moment he did, Garsivaz’s men jumped him and threw him in chains.
After they beat and tortured Bijan, they dragged him to Afrasiab, and threw him on his knees in front of king.
“So,” said Afrasiab. “That cowardly Emperor KeiKhosrow has sent an assassin after me. Has he now stooped to the enchanting of women?” Apparently Afrasiab thought of Bijan as a James Bond type character who had used his sexual charms to get into the palace grounds.
But Bijan’s only concern at this point was how to shift the blame away from Manijeh and direct it towards himself, because by now he was madly in love with her. Manijeh had acted rashly, of course, but then he had been careless of her feelings. So he said to Afrasiab, “Emperor KeiKhosrow knows nothing of my presence here, and your daughter is innocent. On my boar hunt in Armenia I captured a demon and made him fly me past Manijeh’s guards into her chambers. There the demon put a spell on her, to keep her from revealing my presence.” Bijan’s first truly noble act was telling a lie, which for an Iranian warrior is the most ignoble thing you can do. Just one of the paradoxes of love.
Afrasiab turned to Garsivaz, “I have heard of such demons. Could this be true?” It was Afrasiab’s turn for denial, but this time the liar Garsivaz was staunchly on the side of truth.
“There are such demons, my Lord,” he said “but from the level of partying that was going on in the harem I would rule out that possibility.”
“Then prepare the gallows,” Afrasiab ordered.
“Yes, my Lord,” said Garsivaz holding his dagger against his heart as a gesture of obedience, “Gallows for two.”
“Gallows for one,” Afrasiab quickly clarifed. And he came up with this excuse to save his daughter: “Manijeh will live so she can watch him die. Strip of her royal garments and throw her out to fend for herself.”
“Sire,” said Garsivaz. “ If you show mercy, your vassals will dare plot against you.”
“Is that a threat Garsivaz?” Afrasiab roared.
“No sire,” Garsivaz squeaked and slithered out of the room.
As the gallows were being prepared, General Piran, high commander of the Tooranian army, was riding by on his way to a meeting with the king. When he saw the gallows, he asked the passersby who was being hanged. When he found out it was Bijan, son of Geev, General Piran was gravely concerned. Unlike the twisted Garsivaz, General Piran was a man of peace. Throughout the Shahnameh, Piran takes every opportunity to rescue what he can from the disasters of war. It’s noteworthy that the most spiritually enlightened character in the whole of Shahnameh belongs to the enemy camp.
The general rode to the palace, and persuaded Afrasiab to let his anger cool before he made any irreversible decisions. The death of Bijan would surely unleash a new and expensive war against Iran. Perhaps Emperor KeiKhosro would trade an advantage for Bijan’s release. After much persuasion, Afrasiab ordered Garsivaz to tear down the gallows and imprison Bijan instead.
Garsivaz followed the King’s orders to the letter and imprisoned Bijan, but he did this in his own perverse way. There was a big rock that Akvan the deev had tossed into China from the bottom of the sea. This magical rock was so heavy that no prisoner trapped underneath it could ever hope for rescue. So, for special occasions, Garsivaz had the rock chained to a hundred elephants and pulled all the way to Tooran from China. As Manijeh watched, a pit was dug, and the hapless Bijan was thrown into it. Then a hundred elephants harnessed to chains dragged the rock over the pit, burying Bijan alive. Gloating from the top of the rock, Garsivaz then gave Bijan the devastating revelation that it was his own companion in arms, Gorgin, that had plotted this fate.
Meanwhile in Iran, Gorgin returned to the Emperor’s palace without Bijan. He bowed and placed the head of the leader of the wild boar in front of the throne. Geev, standing beside Emperor KeiKhosro asked, “Where’s my son, Gorgin?”
“Sorry, Geev,” said Gorgin. “We defeated the boar army, and we were on our way back, when Bijan spotted a wild ass and went and after it. I saw right away that it was luring Bijan into following it, and I told him this may be a deev who has transformed itself into an animal. But Bijan didn’t listen, and followed it into the forest. I searched for days, but I fear, Geev, that your son has been taken by the deev.
Geev fell to his knees and sobbed in grief.
Emperor KeiKhosro was also stricken with sorrow, but he kept his wits. “Gorgin,” he said. “It must have been a hard fight against the boar.”
“Yes my Lord, it was a savage fight. The boars knocked me off my horse and I fought them with daggers. I slew the boar leader myself.”
“Then how is it, Gorgin, that there is not even a scratch on your armor?”
A few “elementary my dear Watson”s later and Gorgin confessed the truth. He was shackled and thrown in the dungeon.
Then Emperor KeiKhosro told Geev. Don’t worry old friend. I will look into my magic cup to find your son.
This was the cup that the god Hormoz had gifted to the Emperor. Once a year on the first day of spring, its royal owner could look into the cup and see everything in this world, however hidden. Emperor KeiKhosro had been using it to find out who was plotting against him. Where was the concentration of enemy troops? A kind of magic CIA. But this year the king was using the cup to correct a mistake. He should have anticipated Gorgin and Bijan’s resentment of each other. Elementary, really.
Staring into the divine cup, KeiKhosro saw a beggar woman shoving scraps of food under a big rock. Then he saw Bijan trapped in a pit underneath.
The king emerged from the sacred chamber and immediately summoned his supreme champion Rostam. Rostam who had twice battled Akvan the Deev and lived, asked KeiKhosro to give him a treasure of gold, silk and spices so that he could enter Tooran posing as a merchant. Then, after paying a visit to Gorgin in the king’s dungeons, he set out for Tooran.
Arriving in the capital city of Tooran, Rostam set up shop as trader and began keeping an ear out for Bijan’s whereabouts. One day, as he was having a luncheon of roast chickens, a beggar woman crept in and hoarsely whispered, “Is it true you are from Iran sir?”
“Yes,” said Rostam.
“Then I have an urgent message for you to deliver to your emperor when you return” she said. “Tell Emperor KeiKhosro that Bijan, son of Geev is still alive and waiting to be rescued?”
Now Rostam was a careful spy, so he said, “Look, woman I’m not here to cause trouble. Find someone else to deliver your message.”
But the beggar woman lashed out at Rostam, “Then don’t pretend you are Bijan’s countryman, you coward.”
The flash of anger in her eyes brought Rostam to attention. Who was this beggar whose voice compelled obedience? Then he bothered to take a closer look. Starvation and exposure to the harsh elements made her look gaunt. But beyond a cursory glance, she was stunningly beautiful.
Rostam said. “Look, the most I can do is offer Bijan my hospitality. Here, take this roast chicken to him with my compliments. And as he handed her the chicken, Rostam secretly slipped his signature ring into its belly.
The next day, the woman came back, this time radiant with hope. “Oh Supreme Champion Rostam, when Bijan saw your ring he danced with joy like a madman. And now that I know who you are, let me tell you that I am Princess Manijeh the disowned daughter of king Afrasiab.
Manijeh broke down crying, and told Rostam how at nights, she slept by the rock, slipping a hand under its cruel weight so the tips of her fingers could caress Bijan. How she fought his despair by painting in words the color of the sunset, and the racing of the moon through the ragged clouds. How, as she begged for food to keep him alive, she also collected sights and sounds, and sensations. A flower here, a song there, a quarrel in the marketplace, a comic face. So that at nights when Bijan threw his body against the pit in a cursing rage, calling out Gorgin’s name and vowing bitter revenge, Manijeh could calm him with the sweetness of the world.
She told Rostam how never, even during seizures of wrath, did Bijan blame her for what she had done. Rather he would imagine he was free, and dream up pretend lives with her. Every night they grew old together in a different way.
When Rostam heard all this, he praised the lovers’ dedication. Then, at night, Rostam and Manijeh rode out to the rock. As they neared their destination, Rostam felt a familiar apprehension. Twice he had tangled with Akvan the deev and had felt the spirit of Akvan’s master, the Evil Mind, Ahriman. The sensation of evil present told Rostam that Akvan’s rock was bracing for the battle.
When Rostam and Manijeh arrived, Bijan was still celebrating with a voice full of hope. Rostam reassured the young man and passed on the greetings of Geev, the emperor, and all the rest of the court. Then he told Bijan of his visit with Gorgin. On the mere mention of Gorgin’s name, Bijan suddenly went into a rage, pummeled the walls of the pit, roaring crude oaths of vengeance. Rostam said, “Bijan, Gorgin regrets what he has done. The burden of guilt on his conscience is heavier than this rock.”
Bijan laughed bitterly and said, “Don’t intervene for that traitor, Rostam. If only the power of my anger were in my arms, I could lift this rock by myself. Now free me as your king has commanded you.”
Then Rostam said, “I can’t Bijan. The evil in this rock dilutes my strength with doubt. I must take time to ponder.”
All day, the Supreme Champion sat meditating on his dilemma. His strength, a gift from Hormoz, was a sacred trust, and wouldn’t let itself be used to serve the Evil Mind . If he let Bijan out, Gorgin’s blood would be shed. But the Evil Mind would be served just as well if Bijan died in this tomb. When the board is all black and white, Hormoz is the grand master of the game. It’s when the squares merge into a murky gray that the Evil Mind cries, “checkmate.”
At night Rostam sat helplessly by the fire. Manijeh had torn off a piece of roast from the spit and was feeding Bijan. Her love defied the brutal impenetrability of the rock. What strength, Rostam thought, and recognized this as a sign from Hormoz.
He got up and spoke to Bijan, “If I am to free you, we will need to combine our strengths.”
Bijan said, “I still have much left in me. Tell me what I must do?”
“This will take a lot of courage.”
“I am ready for any challenge, Rostam. As long as it gets me out of here.”
“This will be a far greater challenge that you have faced in your young life,” Rostam said.
“Just tell me what I must do?’
“You must forgive Gorgin.”
There was silence.
Then Manijeh knelt down and through the crack Bijan saw the torment and sorrow in her sunburnt face. She was in pain and love would not let that stand.
“What I have suffered to this day,” Bijan said, “has guided me to this place in my heart. And now that I have arrived, I am thankful to Gorgin.”
Suddenly Rostam felt the power of Hormoz surge through his body. With a cry he raised his fists, each heavier than an anvil, and brought them crashing down upon the rock. The blow started a shock wave that rippled across the plain bouncing boulders in its path. Having stunned the rock thus, Rostam lifted its mighty mass way over his head, and tossed it up into the night sky, where it thundered and glowed all the way back to China.
Rostam then raised Bijan from the pit and the three sped to Iran on the swift back of Rostam’s horse. On their arrival Geev, with tears of joy running down his eyes, rocked his son in his embrace. Then Gorgin came forward and he and Bijan apologized to each other, putting the past behind them. During the banquet in their honor, Emperor KeiKhosro was chatting with the magnificent Manijeh. Seeing how the Evil Mind had tried to use her love to inflict sorrow on the world, he marveled at the way this pampered Princess had held off disaster until help arrived. Then the King of Kings commanded the crowd to silence, declared Manijeh to be his own daughter, and ordered Bijan to marry her.
Love and forgiveness brought a happy ending to the story of Bijan and Manijeh. And perhaps it was this story that led Sultan Mahmood to forgive Ferdowsi’s insolence, and send the old poet the gold along with an apology. But the Sultan’s repentance came too late for a happy ending. As the bags of gold entered through the Eastern gate on the backs of camels, Ferdowsi’s coffin was being carried out of the Western gate on its way to the cemetery.
We really needn’t feel bad for Ferdowsi, though. If you visit his tomb in Khorasan you will see that he is buried on his own property, and not in a cemetery as the anecdote would have us believe This suggests that he came from a family of wealthy landowners and didn’t need the Sultan’s money to finish his book. In fact some people say Ferdowsi started the Shahnameh 19 years before Sultan Mahmood even came to power, and Ferdowsi’s famous diatribe against the Sultan is likely a forgery. The confrontation between Sultan Mahmood and Ferdowsi is a patriotic myth, which serves to encourage Iranians to define themselves more by their ancient culture, and less by Islam. Otherwise the poet and the sultan may never have even met.
And now that we have caught myth in the act of bringing together two strangers out of history, we wonder whether the real Bijan and Manijeh ever met. All we know for sure is that some courageous act of love and forgiveness thousands of years ago brought them together into the same story today, so that they could be remembered together, happily ever after.
In this adaptation of Bijan and Manijeh some aspects of the drama have been expanded, with accompanying minor changes in the specifics of the events. Care was taken however not to stray from the basic storyline, and never to contradict the (presumed) original intent, even as that intent has been augmented. Also, a non-sequitur battle scene has been deleted. This is Ferdowsi’s equivalent of a car chase scene, which weakens his otherwise beautiful story. I encourage the English reader to refer to Dick Davis’ translation of the Shahnameh for a precise rendition. Persian readers, please refer to the original work, beautifully illustrated versions of which are likely on your coffee table already.
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